Minor edit. A few small wording changes...


Kennedy Space Center, Florida-

He'd looked like hell when he joined them, forgoing even food or a home phone call to meet with his gathered crew. Stepping into the computer lab (which they'd claimed… FBI, technician and all… as a sort of 'Base Camp 2'), Pete McCord had the slightly confused, unshaven pallor of a man who'd been hospitalized and medicated for weeks. He wore a white tee-shirt, blue draw-string sweatpants, and a shadowed expression that began to lift from the moment the crew regrouped.

Linda's hand had flown to her mouth at the sight of this curiously lightless and hollow-cheeked Pete. Then, like the others, she rushed to the mission commander.

He stood perfectly still, at first, numb amid all the pats, the embraces and friendly shoulder-punches. Then, Pete gave what remained of his flight crew a fierce, awkward hug.

"It's all true, then…" he murmured aloud. "For awhile, there…"

But, Commander McCord hadn't rested back in the hospital, when his only visitors, the only people who believed him, were a local Salvation Army unit. He wasn't about to quit now. Instead, he counted heads, and came up short.

"Listen," Pete said urgently to Linda, Cho and Roger, pushing them away. "Glad as I am to see you people again, we're missing someone, and I need every man accounted for."

Roger Thorpe nodded, replying,

"We've been looking, Skipper. For both of you, until Gene told us you were hopping a space-A back to the Cape. Macy's still at it, over there."

(From his busy computer station, the lab technician gave them all a distracted wave. He'd been recruited, and then some.)

Like the rest of the Ares III crew, Thorpe retained a vague, slippery image of John Tracy; their John Tracy.

…but it was beginning to fade.

Pete's blue eyes had grown firm, again. He might not be much taller than the ladies, but every inch of the man was astronaut,aviator and Naval Commander.

"Good. Keep at it. Before we do anything else, though, I want each of you to go to separate areas of the room, get yourselves something to write with, and detail everything you recall about the mission. Everything and everybody. No recollection too minor. No conversation, either, until you've written it all down, and we meet to compare notes. Once we've gotten a consensus on who it is we're looking for, we can start making plans."

"But, Pete," Dr. Bennett objected, her brown eyes troubled, "Why? We haven't got time to waste jotting down witness statements. Not when we've lost… lost…"

"John," Kim Cho supplied for her, after a long, fumbling moment. No one questioned McCord's orders a second time. Time, and memory, were slipping.

The sandy-haired mission commander dispatched Agent Rutherford (Rance, now; like Macy Calhoun, he was fast becoming a friend and fellow conspirator) to fetch pencils and coffee.

Pete had pulled a number of creased papers from one of his own pockets. The work of many sleepless nights, it was; with the visits, all that had kept him sane.

"Believe me," he said, frowning round at tall Marine, small doctor and slim, pretty exobiologist, "we're going to need something to fall back on, here. It may sound crazy, but the universe seems to be trying to erase John Tracy. The C-120 flight crew didn't have a clue who I was talking about… But, something here, some situation, won't quite let it happen. Not completely. Not yet."

No one thought he was crazy. Linda bit her lip, one hand pressed to her flat belly. She knew what the anchor was, the fraying lifeline (despite radiation and contraceptive, maintained by the doings of a certain computer) that tethered John. After all, the little one couldn't exist, if its father didn't.

Everyone had noticed the gesture, just as Cho had read the medical file. Linda's shoulders began to shake, but Pete cut her off by thrusting a pencil and stack of paper at her. Rutherford had returned, having burglarized a nearby office with business-like stealth. The FBI was always prepared.

"None of that, Doctor," Pete told her, firmly. "We're bringing him back."

Linda gave him the ghost of a smile, remembering an old argument.

"Is that your professional opinion, Commander McCord?" she half-joked, one hand cupped protectively over the baby, a mere blob of cells, but already worth defending with everything she had.

"Damn right, it is!" McCord snapped. "We don't quit flying till we're out of the 'missing man formation'. Everyone comes home."

It wasn't just a flight crew, anymore. It was a family.